Remembering Vann Nath

Vann Nath and Albeiro Rodas 8th March 2009

On 8th March 2009 I got the privilege to visit Mr. Vann Nath, the famous S-21’s painter survivor in his house of Phnom Penh. He would pass away two years after, on 5th September 2011. I got this opportunity thanks to a team of television journalists that were doing a kind of show and requested me to be their journalist guide throughout the Khmer Rouge regime history. To be frank, it was a very superficial approach and it is not even worthy to mention who they were, so the only thing I appreciate is the opportunity to meet persons like Vann Nath, Bou Men, the chief of the S-21’s prison and many other activities. 

Vann Nath was not properly welcoming that day. I understood his family works in organizing wedding parties. I arrived in my van, bringing my Khmer assistant and the two Colombian journalists to his house at about 5PM. He did not hide his annoying attitude toward us and I did understand. I guessed we were not the only journalists coming to his house to ask practically for the same. He gave us 15 minutes for the interview.

The cameraman, a young man from cold Bogotá that seemed it was his first time out of the capital, went fast to open a big expensive curtain that was carefully prepared for the upcoming wedding. His intention was of course to get more natural light from the outside. It made Vann Nath to explode. He shouted to the Colombian in Khmer: Please, stop! They took time to arrange all these things…! Please just tell me what you want and quickly, we are very busy! I tried to be so polite to explain to the cameraman that this was not a studio of television and that conditions were put by Vann Nath.

I spoke with the elderly man in Khmer, showing my highest respect and politeness, asking forgiveness for the disturbance. I know you must be a victim of several journalists asking the same, Sir, I said to him and he tried a slight smile. He told me that since the Khmer Rouge Tribunal was under way, his house was a journalist objective and  they were very demanding. Yesterday was a group from BBC, but they asked me to visit Tuol Sleng and now I am very sick, I have to go to Thailand for checks all the time, now I am sick, he explained me.

Out of the superficial questions unprepared by the lady presenter of that television show such as how was life inside S-21, how could you survive, how about the breakfast and many other clunkers, I could do my own questions profiting my Khmer. I asked him if he forgave those persons who produced so much suffering to him, his family and his people. He told me: I think yes, I think I forgave them. But if you propose to me I consider myself his friends, it cannot be… just it cannot be. 

Other of my questions, out of the television show questionnaire, was what was freedom for him. He said this:

Freedom is the possibility to go everywhere, to follow the paths of your own life, to see the sun from rising to setting without fears. It is freedom and we all need it.’

My third questions was about Colombia, of course. I asked him what he would recommend to a country like mine, where some groups try to impose their ideals through violence. He said:

When you want to impose your ideas, you create hates and suffering. Your enemies only can think in oppose to you through more violence. I say to Colombians please learn from what happened in Cambodia. Don’t do what we did here, because after it, there was nothing… nobody won nothing and we all lived only pain and misery.’


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About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (

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